Labour law in Belgium: Employment contracts
A comprehensive guide to employment contracts in Belgium, from negotiating your contract to terminating employment.
The employment contract is a contract by which a person, the worker, undertakes to work, in exchange for a salary, for another person, the employer, and to do so under his authority. The four essential elements in an employment contract are, therefore: the contract, the work, the salary and the employer’s authority (the subordination relation).
The elements of the employment contract (for instance, the nature of the work, a description of duties, if this has been set down in the contract, the working hours and the place where the work is to be performed) cannot be unilaterally modified by the employer or by the worker. The contract must be performed under the conditions, at the time and in the place agreed. Any changes in the employment contract can only be made with the consent of both parties. If the employer or worker unilaterally modifies one of the essential elements of the contract, this is deemed to be the same thing as terminating the employment contract. The employer or worker can then take note of the termination and ask for payment of compensation in lieu of notice. Not all amendments are initialled. The employer, who is in charge of managing the company, can restructure and reorganise the contract if necessary for economic reasons provided it does not significantly alter any essential element of the employment contract.
The law on employment contracts states that any clause by which the employer reserves the right to modify the working conditions unilaterally is null and void.
A permanent employment contract does not have to be stated in writing. Conversely, any other employment contracts and contractual clauses must be stated in writing.
In practice, however, written employment contracts are often used to prevent problems regarding proof.
Employment contracts for which a written document is required:
- Student employment contract
- Fixed-term contract or contract for specific work
- Replacement contract
- Part-time contract
- Contract for the performance of temporary work
- Contract employing a domestic worker
Clauses which must be stated in writing:
- Trial clause
- Non-competition clause.
Use of languages in contracts
The use of languages in industrial relations is regulated in Belgium. Dutch must be used when the employer has his headquarters in the Dutch-speaking region, French when it is in the French-speaking region, and German when it is in the German-speaking region. Undertakings established in the bilingual Brussels Capital Region must draw up documents in Dutch for Dutch-speaking staff and in French for French-speaking staff.
Amendments of employment contracts
If a contract is amended and you are uncertain of the need for a separate written amendment: consult a trade union. The situation is in itself a rare one.
The best thing is to set down in a new contract that it is an extension to or amendment of a previous contract. If you have several contracts: keep all of them. The total time worked at a company can be important in calculating notice periods.
Changes to the text must be initialled by both parties in the margin. The number of changes must be indicated next to the signatures. Text included below the signatures is not valid. References are only valid if referred to in the text. This also applies to information on the reverse of a contract: only valid if referred to in the text above the signature. You should be given an original copy of the employment contract straight away.
For more information about the procedures applicable in a given firm, see the company regulations. Ask for your copy or see where they can be viewed.
End of employment
Employment may come to an end for various reasons. In most cases, either the employer or the employee gives notice. Other possibilities are expiry of the agreed period of employment, death, dismissal for serious misconduct, force majeure, or mutual agreement. Protected workers, such as trade union representatives, prevention advisers, workers on paternity leave and pregnant women, cannot be dismissed. In some cases dismissal is possible only if a severance payment is made. Sometimes a contract is suspended on account of a temporary instance of force majeure, such as inclement weather or a fire. If the suspension is short-term, the employer pays; otherwise payment is the responsibility of the unemployment office.
Termination of contract: resignation or dismissal
Either the employer or the employee may terminate an open-ended employment contract at any time, provided certain formalities are observed. As a rule, fixed-term contracts may not be terminated.
Notice must be given in writing and indicate the start and duration of the period of notice. This period differs according to whether you are a manual worker or a white-collar worker, whether the employee hands in his or her notice (resignation) or whether the employer gives notice (dismissal). It is possible for the notice not to be worked, in which case it is replaced by a one-off payment, the amount of which is equivalent to the salary which would have been paid or received during this period.
For manual workers
The period of notice varies according to seniority.
In the event of dismissal: four weeks if the worker has less than 20 years’ service, and eight weeks if the worker has more than 20 years’ service.
In the event of resignation, the worker must give two weeks’ notice if he/she has less than 20 years’ service, and four weeks if he/she has more than 20 years’ service.
The period of notice begins on the Monday following the week in which notice is given.
For white-collar workers
Periods of notice vary according to the employee’s seniority and salary.
Where the gross annual salary does not exceed EUR 25 277, the period of notice to be given by the employer is at least three months for an employee with less than five years’ service. This period is increased by three months for each additional period of five years’ service. In the event of resignation, the period of notice corresponds to half the notice in case of dismissal but may not exceed three months.
Where the salary exceeds EUR 25 277, the periods of notice are fixed by an agreement entered into at the time notice is given.
The period of notice begins on the first day of the month following that in which notice is given.
In the case of dismissal by the employer, the employee is entitled to reduce the period of notice by giving ‘counter-notice’ of his or her own. The employee is also entitled to leave for seeking a new job.
Unemployment benefit is applied for at the employee’s place of residence on termination of the contract. If notice was given by the employee, a specified period must as a rule elapse before unemployment benefit is payable in Belgium.
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